The Perfect Dessert to Send Off Summer, Straight From Sohla

Starring phyllo, strawberries, and the creamiest, dreamiest custard.

September 10, 2021

We’ve teamed up with Miele to share a delicious project for baking pros and newbies alike, straight from Food52 Resident Sohla El-Waylly: a free-form riff on classic napoleons with golden, crisp phyllo and rose-infused fresh strawberries.

If anyone can make a fancy-schmancy dessert look easy—and teach us how to do it, too—it's our Resident Sohla El-Waylly. A pro chef, flavor whisperer, and A+ teacher, she's been showing us must-know cooking techniques (from braising to roasting chicken wings) in her series Off-Script With Sohla.

Now, she's taking a classic confection—the napoleon, which is somewhat similar to a mille-feuille—and giving it a few of her signature riffs and twists. She's also, of course, dropping a ton of knowledge along the way. Give the video above a watch to see her whip up these Phyllo Napoleons With Strawberry & Rose from scratch, and read on to check out a few of her top tips and tricks for pulling off each step of the recipe at home.

Photo by Julia Gartland. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne.

1. Make a Creamy, Dreamy Vanilla Custard

It wouldn't be a napoleon without some kind of thick, smooth-as-can-be custard. Pulling off one at home is easier than you think—there are just a few lil' details you'll want to keep in mind, according to Sohla:

  • Keep the milk and cream from scorching. If you've got an induction cooktop, like Miele's, then Sohla's got a pastry-chef-approved trick for protecting the milk and cream for you: Sprinkle the sugar into the pan without stirring and it'll settle along the bottom. Crank up the heat as you please, and it'll come to a simmer without burning. (Got a gas stove? Skip this tip.)
  • For the best vanilla flavor, steep it overnight. Since vanilla is Sohla's favorite flavor, she uses both the scraped-out seeds and the pod, which brings an extra vanilla punch. "You can just steep this for 30 minutes if you need to make your custard today, but for maximum vanilla flavor, I'm gonna steep this overnight."
Photo by Tim Morrish
  • Temper the milk and cream into the eggs. Once your milk mixture is infused with vanilla, it's time to put it back on the heat and thicken it with eggs and cornstarch. To avoid an eggy scramble, slowly stream in half of the hot milk-cream mixture into the eggs and cornstarch to carefully bring it up to the same temperature, whisking quickly as you go.
  • Cook your custard for a full minute. Did you know that eggs have an enzyme called amylase that weakens starch and can liquefy your thick, fluffy custard? Sohla does, and she's got you covered. Cook the pudding for one minute (time it if needed) to fully deactivate the amylase, and you'll never have to worry about a sad, soggy dessert.
  • Strain the custard—and don't forget to cover it. Instead of plopping your custard straight into a bowl, strain it first to catch any cornstarch lumps, tough bits from the eggs, or any other unexpected textures. ("That's not fun," says Sohla; we'd have to agree.) Also, if you want to keep the custard from forming a skin as it cools in the fridge, press plastic wrap right up against the surface to cover it.

2. Fear Not the Phyllo

Puff pastry is typically used for napoleons, but store-bought frozen phyllo is a simple (and equally tasty) option. "I think a lot of people find phyllo to be a little scary, because it can dry out and crack, but I think the biggest thing is thawing," says Sohla. Which takes us to our first tip for baking the lightest, flakiest phyllo...

  • Don't rush the thawing process. The best way to defrost your phyllo is overnight in a frosty-cool fridge (for this recipe, she used Miele's MasterCool Refrigerator). "I don't like to do it at room temperature," Sohla explains, "I find that it's just much more flexible and pliable if you let it take its time."
  • When working with phyllo, the quicker the better. Phyllo can and might dry out on you, but that's no big deal. "If it breaks and it cracks, you know, add another layer—it'll be okay," she says.
  • Spread melted butter over every layer. It's the butter that makes the phyllo "stay nice and flaky," Sohla explains. So before putting down your first layer of phyllo, you'll want to give the sheet pan a coating of melted butter first. Then, you'll coat every layer of phyllo afterward, including the top one.
  • Cut the phyllo into squares before baking it. Phyllo will shrink as it bakes in the oven, which will make it practically impossible to slice into perfect squares, so do that before you pop the sheet pan in. Now, the squares don't need to be perfect, Sohla adds—that's what makes it fun. Plus, they'll bake to a beautiful golden brown in the Miele M Touch Oven (pro tip: use the Crisp function), no matter what shape you cut them.
Photo by Tim Morrish

3. It's Time to Assemble Your Napoleons

So close, you can almost taste it—you're just about ready to assemble the napoleons. But first, a few tips:

  • Make sure the whipping cream is super-duper cold. For the airiest whipped cream, the heavy cream needs to be extra chilly. "On hot days, I'll even pop the bowl and the whisk in the fridge to make sure everything stays really cold," Sohla says.
  • Be careful not to over-whip the cream. Whisk away, but just make sure not to over-whip the cream—the texture you're going for, Sohla says, is like Greek yogurt. Once you get to that point, slow down with the whisking. "You just want to take it until it's at nice, soft peaks," she says.
  • Gently fold the whipped cream into the custard. To make sure you keep that light and airy texture of the whipped cream, fold it into the custard. Also, give the custard a good stir before you get started, as it may have gotten a bit gelatinous during its cool down in the fridge. Start by mixing in one-third of the whipped cream, then carefully fold in the rest, one-third at a time (check out the video above to watch Sohla's expert technique).
  • Just a splash of rose water is all you need. "I really love rose water with berries because it's very floral, and so it emphasizes the florality in the berries," Sohla says. But be careful not to overdo it, since a little goes a very long way. Not a fan of rose water? Sohla suggests a splash of elderflower liqueur or a hint of almond extract (yum).
  • It doesn't need to look perfect. Alternate between layers of phyllo, custard, and the rose-infused berries, but don't overthink it, Sohla says. "I don't even try to make it straight, because it won't be, so just embrace it," she explains. Have fun building your beautiful napoleons, and—most importantly—enjoy digging in (we bet they're delicious).

What fruity filling would you put in your phyllo napoleons? Sound off in the comments below!

These showstopping Phyllo Napoleons With Strawberry & Rose came together with help from Miele's range of streamlined, innovative appliances—from their MasterCool Refrigerator to the M Touch Oven.

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Erin Alexander is the Brand Partnerships Editor at Food52, covering pop culture, travel, foods of the internet, and all things #sponsored. Formerly at Men’s Journal, Men’s Fitness, Us Weekly, and Hearst, she currently lives in New York City.